1880 Famine and Distress in the West of Ireland

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Ireland saw food shortages in 1879/80. This period of hardship did not cause the high number of deaths as the Great Famine (1845-1849) and this "famine" was largely limited to the West.

The English and American Press covered the story of the 1880 famine in the west of Ireland.

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"The Distress in the West — THE GRAPHIC, January 24, 1880

1. Picking up a Meal upon the coast and 2. Market sketch in Clifden

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"The Distress in the West — THE GRAPHIC, January 24, 1880

Bring in Fuel in the Hills near Kylemore

"Exterior of a Cabin"

From the Distress in Ireland, February 14, 1880, Harpers' Weekly

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"Interior of a Cabin"

From the Distress in Ireland, February 14, 1880, Harpers' Weekly

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Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck

"The situation Explained The Distress in the West of Ireland"

From Ireland's Possibilities, February 28, 1880, Harpers' Weekly

The well dressed fellow on the right holding his drawing pad in his hand is the artist of the three sketches in the February 28 article including this one. He included himself in this picture and in the picture entitled "An Appeal" (see next picture). Notice that he is wearing an overcoat, while the Irish are more scantily clad.

Notice , also, that the men in this picture are all wearing long trousers, not the knee britches shown in some pictures.

It is hard to see, but the woman in the pictures is not wearing shoes.

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"An Appeal"

From Ireland's Possibilities, February 28, 1880, Harpers' Weekly

In this picture the artist is the fellow with the beard sitting in the car and facing forward. Again notice that the two "gentlemen" are wearing overcoats. The posture of the man in the top hat suggests that even with the overcoat he is cold. Again the Irish are more scantily clad. The little girl on her sister's back is shoeless.

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"Waiting for the priest"

From Ireland's Possibilities, February 28, 1880, Harpers' Weekly

In the article accompanying these pictures it says in part

"On arriving at the priest's house, we found a crowd of women who had waited for hours. Many of them had trudged from the outlying districts to obtain a little relief."
Notice again that these women are barefooted.

"Their only home"

From the Distress in the West of Ireland, March 6, 1880, Harpers' Weekly

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Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck, 2012, The Graphic, November 27, 1880


The Graphic noted that because of the "boycott" and "volcanic condition" of Ireland many landlords were unable to collect their rents and insurance companies refused to insure the landlords against "accidents".

"Distributing alms"

From the Distress in the West of Ireland, March 6, 1880, Harpers' Weekly

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Lancers Clearing The Streets of An Irish Town
Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, April 1880, collection of Maggie Land Blanck

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"God Bless Poor Ould Ireland"

From the Distress in the West of Ireland, March 6, 1880, Harpers' Weekly.

Because of the poor economy many Irish were forced to emigrate.

"The Distress in the West of Ireland", February 14, 1880, Harpers' Weekly

When I bought images from the Harpers Weekly of February 14, 1880 each image came with a part of the accompanying article. The following is taken from all the bits and pieces.

The first part of the article contains a lengthy discussion of long term possibilities to improve conditions in the west, such as turning bog into farm land with long descriptions of how this should be brought about. (I have not transcribed this section because in the long run turning the bog into farmland did not succeed.) This is followed by the following description of Irish farms in the west.

"At present the miserable constructions on Irish farms are a source of amazement to a visitor who knows that he is among a people that pretend to live by agriculture. In vain he looks for specimens of the quadrangle straw yard, with surrounding buildings, which distinguishes most English farms. Except on the few large holdings, there are no straw yards at all, and no farm premises beyond the small thatched houses or hovels which are here honored with the designation of barns, cow-houses, and stables- usually joined on to the farmer's dwelling-house, with manure heaped just outside the doors. The one or two cows and their calves on each holding are in the field all winter- a treatment which the mildness of the climate renders possible, though the loss in the milk producing capability of the country from this measure must be enormous. The calves are shut in at night and fed with hay, and they are not in first-class condition in the spring when sold as yearlings to the large grazing farmers. The occupiers could make good use of cattle sheds and food houses if they had them; in fact, improved husbandry in root-feeding and manure-making- the very basis of proper agriculture- is prevented by this pitiable absence of any reasonable description of farm buildings. It is a puzzle how the tenants on hundreds of farms manage to shelter their live stock, including the active well-fed ass which so commonly pulls their little cart to market with produce or turf for sale."
After this paragraph there is a discussion of fishing. Unfortunately, there are some holes in the paper and much of this section is torn.

The next paragraph deals with emigration and refers to the picture above labeled "God Bless Auld Ireland":

. . . railway station to Clifden is at Galway, a distance of about forty miles, this journey must be accomplished on an outside car. I saw a passenger take his departure one morning for America. A crowd of his friends came to wish him "godspeed," many of them envying him his good luck in being able to get off to the land of plenty. He shouted at the top of his voice, "God Bless poor ould Ireland!" all along the street, and the women wailed in their piteous manner running after the car as far as they could."
This is followed by a description the condition of several fishermen.

Another section continues:

. . . hereditary hatred of England, fostered by his surrounding, he nevertheless looks to that government to protect him form his enemies, and to feed him when he is hungry. An English writer who has made a study of the Irish character paints it graphically but justly as follows:
"Litigious, quarrelsome, revengeful, he has his good sides also. Good-natured and sociable and fond of fun, keen-witted and argumentative to the last degree, he enjoys life fairly. Hospitality is still one of his cardinal virtues, and he charms by his pleasant manner the passing stranger with whom he has no business relations. A mass of contradictions, it is difficult to know what pleases him. Hating English apparently with a hatred that can only be expressed by Irish fecundity of invective, he never fails to come to the front when men are required to fight her battles; and revering the parish priest with the awe due to one possessed of supernatural powers, he stops his due, nails up the door of the chapel and boldly denounces his as a tyrant, when he has ventured to oppose any popular sentiment. Lying, when occasions seems to demand it, with a brazen disregard to truth that would have but ANANIAS to blush, he love truth in others, and bears no malice to the adversary who has succeeded by the practice of that virtue. No man on earth respects justice more, or practices it less. He will work day and night to make a man go crooked in his favor, and despise him heartily for having done so; and rending Heaven with cries for mercy and justice from a ferocious government for a starving and helpless people, he sows threatening notices broadcast lest any man should pay his just debts, and as a warning to those who honestly intend to meet their engagements he has maimed and killed cattle of some, fired into the houses of others, in some cases beaten, and in one instance mutilated the man who paid his rent. Like steam, he is a good servant, but a bad master. When disciplined, his brilliant courage has been displayed on nearly every battle-field in Europe and in every country on the face of the globe; and his fidelity was amply proved by that splendid force, the Irish constabulary, at the time of the Fenian rebellion; but at home his moral cowardice and obliquity in matters of social order afford a hitherto unsolved problem in Irish criminal procedure."
A single glance at the history of Ireland will show that unthrift and dependence are the very centres of her national life. No amount of suffering and misery has ever taught her the value of economy, thrift, and self-reliance. In the early times, when the sparse population of the country was divided into clans, about seventy in number, chiefs were elected from members of the ruling family. Upon these unfortunate "kern" was helplessly dependent. Until the reign of JAMES I the lower orders of Irish had no legal tenure, no freehold property. Dr. O'CONNER tells us that they were worse off than the Negroes in the West Indies. "Their haughty chiefs could punish them at pleasure, by coigne and livery, by cosherings, cessings, cuttings, tallages, spendings, etc., and even by death."

After the last of the various uprisings against English conquest, the conquered territories were granted to English settlers, who, especially in the west and southwest, let the lands on the system that existed in England in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and is now to be found in Russia, and to a very small extent, in the west of Ireland. A quantity of land is taken by a village, whose head-man is accountable for the rent. He divides the arable land, changing the divisions every year of so that no tenant can tell where he may sow his crop next year. Sometimes a tenant is apportioned a ridge for potatoes or a patch of oats in one part of a field, another in another, and a third a quarter of mile distant. This is called the Rundale system, and represents the early attempt of a community to farm to a certain extent on communistic principles. In these villages the rapid increase soon reaches the limits of the food supply, and the surplus population floats off, to form a portion of the crowds of Irish in England, who will one day prove themselves as politically troublesome and unpractical as are the friends they have left behind them, or the Irish population in America.

The greatest difficulty experienced in the management of Irish estates, according to certain thinkers, is the prevention of subdivision; and for this tendency the tenant is not entirely to blame, as for over fifty years previous to the famine of 1846-47 estates had deliberately been divided into very small holdings. This system was inaugurated in 1793, when the Catholic Relief Act restored to the Catholics power to vote without having first taken the oath of supremacy. The bill gave a vote to every person who held a lease for life, the declared annual value of the farm being forty shillings over the amount of the rent reserved for lease. The landlords were not slow to take advantage of this act for the manufacture of voters, and between that time and 1829, when the forty-shilling freeholders were disfranchised, the subdivision of properties went on to such an extent that the impoverished tenants who swarmed in the south and west of Ireland, living in miserable hovels, and trusting almost entirely to the produce of the potato crop, never too abundant for their wants, were certain to be destroyed by any diminution of the principal food. Down to 1829 a feeling of friendship and mutual dependence existed between the landlords and their tenants. The value of a property consisted in its rents and its votes, and when it is remembered that the possession of a property let to many voters secured the settlement of the junior members of the family, and many other advantages, the price as much as fifty-two years' purchase, which was sometimes given, does not appear so exorbitant. The disfranchisement of these small tenants had already brought home to the landlords some of the evils of overpopulation, in increased pauperism, without the counterbalancing interest, when the failure of the potato crop in 1846 culminated in that frightful famine when the corpses lay thick upon the roadside. Men quietly laid down their spades at the foot of the public works, and died under the eyes of the overseer. Children were found vainly trying to draw nourishment from the cold breast of their dead mothers, and every horror painted for the time of JOSEPHUS found a counterpart in the dreadful scenes of that awful time. Under such a pressure the Poor Law broke down; and though ultimately England come forward and voted eight millions to be expended in public works, and the charities of private associations were nobly generous, it was impossible to cope with the astounding distress. Landlords found ruin staring them in the faces; and from one extreme opinion veered to another- that the most prosperous property was that on which the fewest tenants were to be found.

With these experiences still within the recollection of many persons living, it seems chimerical to fancy that Ireland's ills can ever be overcome by any scheme such as that proposed by Mr PARNELL for making the peasant owner of the soil, and increasing the number of small holdings. Food is the thing required, and statements are freely made that a peasant proprietary means an increase of food produced per acre in cultivation. But to combat this specious reasoning we have only to turn to the able address made a short time ago by Mr. BRASSEY to the English Agricultural Society, in which it is distinctly shown that the return per acre in England, where large farms are the rule, is far beyond that of any European country, or of America, and a visit to the field of a Scotch farmer in Ireland, and to that of the small farmer on the other side of the fence, shows the advantage of the system of farming with capital over that of farming with none.

In considering the effects of a peasant proprietary as we see them in other countries, it is necessary to look at the previous history of the peasant, the character of tenure, and above all his habits. Of the condition and habits of the Irish people we know only too much from their history and their every surroundings. The first principle of farming is that the ground can not support more than one crop at a time. In the small Irish farms the land has to support not alone the crop that has been put in by a most slovenly parody on husbandry, but also a heavy crop of weeds that eat away often quite half the return of that for which the rent has been paid. If in any country a people originally thriftless, indolent, and discontented can be found who have been changed by the redistribution of property into a hardworking, contented, solvent, and law-abiding community, a strong point will be made by the advocates of recent doctrines. Probably very few would be found with the hardihood to deny that a considerable number of proprietors farming anything over forty acres would be a valuable element in Ireland as in other countries; but the demand, as it stands now, is for the endowment of the small tenants, who has not, as a rule, displayed a single trait affording promise that his emancipation will be conducive to the peace and prosperity of the country.

The rest of the article is missing.

"Irelands Possibilities", February 28, 1880, Harpers' Weekly

The article describes a visit to the west coast parish of Clifton by the artist of the sketches published on February 28. It quotes from the artist as follows

One man, the orator of the sketch, was a basketmaker. He could earn at the most ninepence a day. He was the sole support of a partially paralyzed father, a mother who had been bedridden for years, and a sister. I visited their cabin, and it was as neat and tidy as such a place could be made. The man spoke intelligently, but misfortune had soured him. It was pointed out that public works would best meet the present evil. There is, however, a great horror of drainage or improvements undertaken by the landlords. "They will only raise the rints," already too high for the tenants to drag from the unwilling soil. In driving along the roads we were met by appeals from men and women, too evidently in earnest. The children in one place had just enjoyed the luxury of a meal of "stir-about." One little fellow was very proud of the distended stomach he had gained thereby. On arriving at the priest's house, we found a crowd of women who had waited for hours. Many of them had trudged from the outlying districts to obtain a little relief. The private means of the clergy are all exhausted; but on this occasion, through the kind help of some unknown friend, the hearts of the poor creatures were made glad by the gift of half a hundred-weight of meal each. It is some weeks since I sketched this scene. The poverty had greatly increased since then. The priest now writes to me:"for God's sake, leave no stone unturned to send us help. There is no doubt that kind sympathy and ready help now will heal an old wound."
The end of the article is missing.

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The State of Ireland---Evicted

March 20, 1880, Illustrated London News

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Irish Sketches: A Fisherman's Cabin In Connemara

March 13, 1880, Illustrated London News

Print collection of Maggie Land Blanck, 2012, unknown publication 1880


In March 1880 the Constellation carried more than 2,500 barels of potatoes and flour to Ireland. The Duke of Edinburgh inspected the ship upon her arrival in Ireland.

In addition to the achievements of private charity, an official mark of sympathy from the Government of the United States must not be overlooked, who, fol- lowing the remarkable precedent of the "Jamestown" and the "Macedonian" in 1847, commissioned the United States frigate "Constellation " (Captain Pottee) to proceed to Ireland with a cargo of relief provisions. The Lord Mayor of Dublin and Mr. W. Lane Joynt, D.L., were deputed by this Committee to welcome the representatives of America upon their arrival at Cork Harbour; and it may be hoped that the cordial, and even enthusiastic attentions paid throughout Ireland to the officers of the " Constellation,"—(in whose honour the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress gave a great ball in the Mansion House, and whose commander, as representative of the United States, was invested with the freedom of the city of Dublin),—have been accepted, as they were intended, as some slight tokens of the profound gratitude with which all ranks and classes of the Irish people were inspired by the unexampled generosity of America.

The Irish crisis of 1879-80 By Dublin Mansion House Relief Committee

Phil Gilson of Brooklyn shared the following related web sites, May 2012:


Report of the Commander of the Relief Ship Constellation

On This Day, February 28, 1880

The Irish Coastguard in Famine Relief on the West Coast.

Land Issues

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